Sunday morning ritual. Make a pot of coffee. Drink a pot of coffee while reading the scriptures for the day one more time. Go over the service order again and go for a walk with the dogs.
This morning I have been wrestling, as I have all week, with the push of “Progressive Christianity” – with it’s ditching of the divine Jesus – and the shove of people reacting strongly to even questioning such things. While I find that the Progressives throw the baby out with the bathwater, I am all for some fresh water to bathe in. You would think anyone would be. But even when that water gets cold and dirty, there are folks who strongly resist the idea of pulling the plug on the tub. As a pastor of a flock I am torn between leading us forward and caring for the stragglers. Some have already run on ahead of me studying and eating up these new challenging ideas while others only react in shock to the news headlines that confront them “United Church Ministers question the Divinity of Jesus”.
There is a trail out behind our place where, once we climb the steep hill to the ridge, I can let the dogs run free. We walk along a ridge with glimpses down to Cameron Lake before dropping down into a maple forest glade where deer gather in the winter. Where the trail forks it’s a half hour loop either way you go and you end up right back here again. At the far end of the loop there is another ridge where I stop to pray between a very old white pine and a very young maple. But before you get to the ridge there is a low spot that floods in the spring. On this side of the loop, you can walk around the pond off the trail and through the woods which I do on my approach to the ridge this morning.
After my prayers, I descend the hill on the other side of the ridge. Walking off the trail into the woods I look for the logs across the flooded gulley that I usually step across - sometimes getting a soaker. But the water is deep, the heavy snows have almost all melted now, and my bridge is nowhere in sight.
My first thought is that I’ll have to go back. Climb the hill and retrace my steps. I hate doing that.
Then God says “Go through the pond allan.”. Suddenly the pond is about my struggle. It’s an obstacle that must be broached if I am to go forward and carry on with the journey. It’ll involve getting my feet wet but isn’t there always a cost?
“This is silly” I think. I don’t have to prove anything here. I’ll just go back around. I have lots of time this morning.
But God is insistent. “Allan, didn’t I make you a leader? What’s the big deal? It’s not like I’m asking you to go and marry a prostitute like I told Hosea. He needed to learn about heartbreak. You need to learn about leading.”
So into the water I step, step, step. I’ve got my canvas sneakers on so they’ll dry soon. I consider pulling my sweat pants up over my knees to try to keep them dry but I’m up to my knees in water by the fifth step. It’s slippery underfoot and I soon forget about keeping the pants dry and concentrate instead on not falling.
As I forge ahead through the melted snow I’m up to my waist and still not half way. No stopping now. It gets up to my nipples before it starts getting shallow again. I am noticing the cold now. The water is making my flesh tingle as body heat is sucked out into the pond. It’s a prelude to going numb but I’m not sticking around for that. I’m out on the other side, laughing at myself for getting surprised by how deep and cold that little pond was, when I hear “yip, yip, yip”.
I’ve totally forgotten about the dogs! I look back and there they are - my two little black and white friends dancing around the edge of the pond where the trail entered the water. Neither of them are swimmers. The black one’s like a cat when it comes to water and the white has to have a really good reason to swim (like fetching a tennis ball). As much as I call and encourage them on from this side I already know that they ain’t gonna swim the pond. I walk further up the path hoping they’ll get desperate but they just start heading up the path on the other side. Okay, I figure, they know this path well. They’ll go around and meet me at the loop’s fork.
I make my way through the woods, dripping and chuckling at what I’ve learned. Not only is the water colder and deeper than I assumed, but my followers aren’t necessarily in step behind me. I play with the metaphor some more. They’ll go back the way of the familiar path and we’ll meet up again on the road where we’ll finish the journey together.
I knew when I got into this business that my ideas about Christianity were’nt exactly well-travelled-401 kind of ideas. I’d grown up traveling that highway. I’d even had a mystical, life-changing experience of Jesus Christ. But I knew that Jesus didn’t see the Church as the only expression of hope in the world. I chose to work in the Church box because – as they say with writing “write what you know” and - I knew the church.
So, I was comfortable with the church folks and I not necessarily being at the same place on the path – even if I had to walk alone for part of the way that was okay too. I was confident that we’d meet up again. But as I waited at the fork for the dogs to show. As I called and whistled I slowly began to realize that the reunion wasn’t going to happen.
That black dog has a mind of its own. She just loves to run wild every chance she gets. I figured that she’d taken off through the woods and was on her way to terrorizing the neighbourhood cats and putting all the dogs into a defensive frenzy. Then she’d head down to the main drag to see if there were any children with food in their hands and maybe end up in a store or stopping traffic before she got captured and delivered to the vets.
And the white dog, well, she was totally different. She doesn’t like leaving home. She’s never had to be trained to stay on our property. She likes to make like she’s brave when dogs or strangers come by, but she never goes far from the food bowl. She’ll play ball with my son David for as long as he throws the ball or she’s got breath in her body. Faithful and loyal and fun, I figured she’d just follow the black dog til she got home.
So, I gave up on them and headed home by myself. At least, I thought, extending the metaphor further still, we have the same home and we’ll all end up there eventually. It wasn’t quite as positive an image as “journeying together” but well, that’s what God gave me to think about today.
Then, through the woods comes a mournful, distressed cry. A howling, yipping, call for help. I stop, laugh, and shake my head. It’s about a half mile back now and I’m thankful that this morning I have the extra time (what would I do if the time was tight? Leave her or leave the congregation waiting?) I turn around and head back to get her. The black dog shows up just past the fork in the path. She’s all proud and happy to meet me and a little wet underneath I notice as I stoop to give her a pat. She’s half blind now and is 77 going on 84 but she’s as independent as ever.
We go together back to the edge of the ridge on the side where the water’s not so deep and call for our friend. She appears all bouncy and happy and even runs through the water at the far end of the pond just to show us she’s not a total suck. We have a happy reunion and we all head back home together. As usual, I put the black dog on the leash before we get too close to the neighbourhood. She helps pull me up the last hill like the twenty pound sled dog that she is.
I go and preach a sermon - after changing into dry clothes - that ventures into the edges of the pond but begins and ends on dry ground. Neither the black dogs or the white dogs are totally satisfied with it and neither am I. But today is Monday and we’ve got to get on with the journey. Enough splashing around, the kingdom awaits our cooperation.